Living in Libby
The oversized door to the Libby VFW lounge swings open on a dimly lit bar, loosing a stampede of sunlight on unadjusted eyes. As the light is choked off, the sitters have already teased and welcomed an old friend or tossed a friendly ribbing at a stranger. Libby has that familiar small town atmosphere: the path between stranger and friend is short, and one way. Friends take up less space, there isn’t enough room for enemies. The VFW This is where Lynn spends her afternoons between two jobs
On its surface the town seems typical of Western Montana. Hardy people, local bars, a main street that feels just 5 years past its prime. But the town is known in the area as a tragedy. About 100 years ago, Libby staked its fortune on a vermiculite mine just outside of town. The obscure mineral was used extensively for fireproofing and heat resistance around the country and world. The town of 2,000 people were producing 80% of the vermiculite used worldwide. The vermiculite mined here though was deeply contaminated with asbestos.
The government made a long overdue step into the town to analyze and begin cleanup in the early 2000s. As of today, the EPA is finishing up their cleanups of public spaces and homes, hopefully minimizing future cases of asbestosis. But Lynn sees the illness of the town has metastasized past any single health disaster. It’s the convergence of little injuries. The town fell gradually, like a giant toppling and stumbling as its body meets the ground, the whole scene appearing slowly just because of the scale of each moment.
I ask why she regrets losing the stable Navy work
These days, the focus is on getting by. The town’s turn has also turned eyes downward. Goals, recreation, priorities have shifted to today and tomorrow and people’s strength becomes their ability to make ends meet.
Freedom here is not lofty, philosophical or esoteric. It is visceral, a mirror of the soul of a town grinding to stay alive.
Lynn and her town are a picture of American grit in its realest sense. Stripped of the romanticism of Hollywood movies or nostalgic hero stories, American grit is the daily challenge for people in towns like these, who may feel forgotten or left behind. People survive here in the spirit of the pioneers as the pioneers understood it. It is not hard to see why government feels far away, business seems out of control, and the community feels set adrift. Repairing an America that feels broken all over starts with restoring freedom, as Lynn understands freedom: the basic freedom to live a life with purpose and leisure.